Ceto, which opened last month on the Riviera, is the first haute cuisine French restaurant of the 21st century. It’s almost shockingly exceptional, because chef Mauro Colagreco knows exactly how to transport his guests away from the angst caused by the coronavirus, climate change, and poisoned politics.
“We need comfort and hope. We need to be reminded of the beauty of the world,” says the Argentine-born Colagreco, 45, who also runs the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur, just a few miles away in Menton. He is regularly declared to be the best chef in the world by numerous culinary competitions and rankings.
Chatting before lunch at his newest restaurant on a sparkling Indian-summer Saturday on the Côte d’Azur, Colagreco gestures at the sweeping view of the Mediterranean Sea from a terrace at the 69-room, five-star Maybourne Riviera hotel, which is perched on a cliffside above Monaco in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
The property, which is owned by the parent company of Claridge’s, the Connaught, and the Berkeley in London, just opened after a $113 million expansion and renovation of an existing hotel.
The mostly maritime menu Colagreco created for Ceto, named for a primordial sea goddess in Greek mythology, also recognizes that the pandemic has had a before-and-after impact on French cooking. “What we want is the sea and all of the creatures that live in it,” he says, adding, “We want to eat primal.”
To wit, if everyone was ecstatic when restaurants reopened in France in May after two long lockdowns last year, many people were also surprised to discover how much their tastes had evolved toward lighter fare.
“Now we’re hungry for simple, healthy food that respects the natural tastes and textures of best-quality produce,” says Colagreco.
“Luxury is always a mirror of the age … so wild seafood, which is ever scarcer and more expensive, is the biggest delicacy in the world today.”
Almost all of the fish and shellfish served at Ceto comes from the Mediterranean, including the daily catch of one small-boat fisherwoman who works exclusively for Colagreco.
“The challenge was how to best express the natural taste of this very precious fish. In Japan, I learned about dry-aging fish to bring out its flavor. So we built a walk-in aging locker at Ceto with rock-salt walls,” he continues, before explaining why grilling is the most effective way to cook the aged fish, as it seals in the juices. A custom grill, which burns charcoal briquettes made from olive pits, occupies a prominent place in the center of the kitchen.
In the top-floor dining room, designed by Argentinean interior architect Marcelo Joulia, the views of the Mediterranean through picture-window walls are mesmerizing. The swirled white ceiling resembles a nautilus shell.
“Luxury is always a mirror of the age.”
Despite the preview by Colagreco, though, I was astonished by the meal that followed, beginning with the fact that the young staff were so relaxed, warm, and friendly. Clearly someone had decided to fling the old, tightly laced Michelin corset of mannered formality into the sea, and so much the better. Part of the pleasure of the meal that followed was the enthusiasm of those who served us.
The experience began with a small salad of sea vegetables that registered as a bold marine distillation of brine and bitterness. Intended to scour your palette and compel your attention, it was as potent as Poseidon’s trident.
Next, a teasingly delicate autumnal dish of laser-cut cèpes with roasted hazelnuts and mizuna (a green), and then a remarkable slice of garnet-colored local tuna belly, where the aged meat is under a blaze of homemade XO sauce—an umami-bomb Cantonese condiment made from dried shrimp and scallops, chili peppers, Jinhua ham, garlic, and canola oil, almost melted on a rigging of muscle.
Then I easily succumbed to the temptation of transparent ribbons of lardo di colonnata (the Italian charcuterie that’s the world’s most elegant fatback), which veiled a plump grilled oyster like porcine lingerie. A small, sour corsage of wilted sorrel leaves made the crustacean seem almost flirtatious by elongating its natural flavors.
Sustainability is the axis of the kitchen at Ceto. But the restaurant is piloted by pleasure rather than anything didactic, which made a pearly filet of humble scorpion fish—in France, it’s usually used to make fish soup rather than starring on its own—a very subtle lesson in the good taste of ecologically conscious gastronomy. Sea bream with grilled baby leeks and ajo verde (green garlic) sauce nodded at the refined but fully flavored cooking Colagreco does at Mirazur. Finally a nori-seaweed mille-feuille with vanilla cream and caramel sauce concluded a suave and uniformly exceptional meal.
Although Ceto is the headliner table at the Maybourne Riviera, Colagreco also runs Riviera, the lobby restaurant, which specializes in comfort food from Provence, Corsica, and Liguria, such as cioppino (fish soup) and tarte fine comté, a tart featuring the celebrated cheese of France and black truffles. The chef completes his hat trick with the Riviera Playa, serving up Mediterranean classics in a relaxed beachside setting.
There’s no need to leave the Maybourne Riviera during a stay here in order to eat spectacularly well. Simply be mesmerized by the views and luxuriate in rooms designed by an all-star cast of talent, including the London-based design firm Rigby & Rigby, and designers Michelle Wu, Pierre Yovanovitch, and Bryan O’Sullivan.
Parisian architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte designed the striking revision of the original hotel building, which was once known as the Vista Palace Hotel & Beach Resort. And in a nod to its neighbor, the majestic Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, the annex discreetly built into the adjacent cliff flanks one of the world’s most vertigo-inducing infinity pools.
No one should miss a visit to the nearby villa E-1027, architect and designer Eileen Gray’s recently restored modernist masterpiece, or the Maybourne’s palmy private beach club. But, otherwise, checking into the Maybourne Riviera is all about staying put.
Rooms at the Maybourne Riviera are available from $966 per night; prix fixe dinner menu, $191; prix fixe lunch menu, $68
Alexander Lobrano is a Paris-based writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, is out now